National Post Restaurant Review Dec 4 2010 Niagara St. Cafe

‘Tis the season to eat fresh truffles. I hail a passing pig, the non-pareil truffle hunter,  to hunt them down.  She  sniffs the air, gives a grunt and trots straightaway to the Niagara Street Cafe, Anton Potvin’s festive little boite in the  rising condo corridor along King St. W.  The truffle’s release of pheromones is that powerful! Sure enough,  I find both white and black truffles for the asking. Just jetted in from Croatia. They’re billed as Wanda’s Truffles after  the supplier, Wanda Srdoc whose family made a major truffle strike in the Motovun oak forests which is to Croatian truffles what Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar oil field is to oil.  Motovun’s truffles are so good that the Croatia is now a leading exporter to North America. Truffles of course are now being farm-grown as well –  New Zealand and North Carolina are among the leaders.  Eco-eaters may grumble over the hefty carbon print left by the little truffle.  Go ask Ontario farmers why we don’t have fresh’n’local truffles.  B.C. has begun with  Duckett Truffieres , but their truffles haven’t yet made their way to Ontario. Of course that will be a hefty carbon print too.

Chef Nick Liu is now bringing out the truffles for our inspection. They look like a couple of smallish moon rocks. One step for mankind, a giant step for the gourmand.   The white one is pockmarked, the larger black one has a bubbly black skin.

OMG, a pound of these negligible fungi cost the earth – an aphrodisiacally high price tag. Retail – twelve bucks a gram or $5376 a pound. I have ideal companions for this treat. Nigel and Diane are chalking up their first wedding anniversary. May the good times continue to roll.

They rate the NSC romantic. Soft lights, soft music, friendly service, comfortable banquette. So far no cell phone activation. Nobody’s reading the Giller winner The Sentimentalists  on Kobo. A live person place, a sophisticated take on a neighbourhood restaurant. Dusted with glamour too.  It  has the reputation for entertaining major wine imbibers who bring their own great vintages  to match a meal.  Us chickens do ok too. Potvin has a discerning wine list, starting with a a crisp and affordable white house wine, Domaine de Sancet, Cotes de Gascogne, $8 a glass.

We sniff the air. Something’s coming, something good.  Little bowls of  fresh, hand-cut pappardelle with pecorino cheese arrive,  spotted  with truffle scrapings – don’t waste a spoor now.  The black truffles are $15, the white, $19.  The white gets a higher gastronomic rating says  Connoissieur Potvin. He declares that at first he liked the black better but now he’s in thrall to the white – it tastes of gasoline, high octane, intoxicating.  Say, perhaps he’d like to become a food writer. Chef Liu is even more ecstatic “The white truffle’s flavour gives me the  feeling of being in love.”

To me, the truffle-imbued pasta is food from the crypt — as if retrieved from some musty tomb. It’s amazing  just how far a few truffle scrapings are infecting the thick pasta ribbons. Greedily, we think, more please. We agree  that we’d be willing to pay more for say, another half-gram of black or white.   Not more pasta, just more truffle. Perhaps the menu should indicate a booster dish for Xtreme truffle hounds.  .

We come down from our truffle high and consider Liu’s menu. Refreshing.  Crispy confit frogs legs are juicy, like baby chicken and they come with a Toadstool! $13. It’s okay, not the red one with white spots. The accompanying  sauce Gribiche, eggy, creamy, spiked with pickles is complemented with the peppery fresh watercress.

Ontario smelts! They must not be ignored. Fried, $12, they no longer smell of violets but the green curry mayo and a spicy thai dipping sauce makes up for that.

Diane picks the fish special. The fugitive-flavoured rainbow trout $25 has the requisite crisp skin. Nigel says the fried duck confit duck wings hit the spot, but why are they “parked on a strange Belgian waffle”  — corn and duck bacon waffles – which makes the meat seem dry, despite maple jus and green slaw $25.  A little pot of bronzed lemon curd and green tea cream chantilly ($9 each) make a sweet ending. .

** Niagara Street Cafe, 169 Niagara St. 416-703-4222 wheelchair access. Dinner for two plus tax:  $115

One star: worth a detour. Two stars: Exceptional cooking and/or unique surroundings . Three Stars: The Package – signature cooking/style, atmosphere, service.

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